Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,
To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
So we talked about Paul. But what about the folks to whom he writes?
Philippi was a city established in Macedonia (Greece) near several gold mines. This, along with its strategic location along an important trade route, explains both it significance in the ancient world and the reasons it was built as a fortified city. By the time of Paul, the Macedonian Empire had been replaced the Roman Empire and Philippi flourished not only as a city but also as a military garrison.
Most of what we know about Paul’s relationship with the Philippians comes from the letter itself, although we can glean a little more information from some of Paul’s other letters and from Luke’s description of Paul’s visits to the Philippians in The Acts of the Apostles. From these sources, historians gather that Paul first visited Philippi around 49-50 AD and returned perhaps twice more. Paul’s letter to the Philippians is usually dated to around 60.
Why is he writing? As we will see, the Philippians had sent Paul gifts and a companion to help take care of him while we was in prison. This companion, Epaphroditus, became very ill while he was with Paul. Once Epaphroditus had recovered, Paul sent him back to the Philippians in order to thank them for their gift and to offer counsel, encouragement, and instruction on matters both theological and personal.
Paul begins his letter in the customary form of the ancient word: announcing first the sender, then the recipient, and then offering a formal greeting. In this case, Paul uses a greeting that became customary for him, blessing his recipients with grace and peace from the God we know most clearly in Jesus. Preachers since have often begun their sermons with the same words, in this way linking their preaching to the teaching of the earliest apostles.
Philippians is considered the first Christian community in Europe and represents the spread of the gospel through the ancient world. When you think about it that way, you begin to realize that these early Christians form something of a bridge between the teaching of Jesus in the first century in Palestine and all those who in the years and centuries to come would come to believe in Jesus because of the efforts of missionaries like Paul and congregations like Philippi.
In this sense, the Philippians are our ancestors in the faith, and what Paul writes to them he also says to us. For while the specifics of their condition and situation differ from ours, their questions – how to maintain confidence in the face of struggle, the search for peace and contentment in a turbulent world – resonate with our own. For this reason we keep reading these ancient words, hearing in them the concern of a pastor for the growth and health of a young Christian congregation, first for those believers gathered Philippi in the middle of the first century, and now to countless communities of faith spread all over the globe in the twenty-first century.
Prayer: Dear God, we give you thanks for the Apostle Paul, who spread the word of your grace and peace throughout the world he knew, and we give you thanks for the Philippians, early believers who cared for Paul and each other. In Jesus’ name, Amen.